Most of my clients have websites built on the WordPress CMS platform. I love WordPress for many reasons, but the main ones are:
It’s highly customizable: Your WordPress site can look any way you want it to look and perform any way you want it to perform, whether you’re in e-commerce or information marketing.
WordPress is also user-friendly. Even newbies can figure out how to edit pages and create posts.
But the main reason I love WordPress the most is because it’s so darned SEO-friendly. You can use a plugin or two and have your site doing all the right things for SEO.
But here’s the kicker…
People think they can move their site to a new domain, which in practice, is very simple to do. Or, they think that they can change directories, sub-domains or permalinks, and that search engines will be OK with it.
Trust me. They won’t.
This can happen in various ways:
You want to change the category names for blog posts.
You want to move a sub-domain to a sub-directory.
You want to move your whole site to a new domain.
Changing your domain name
When you change your domain name, it’s like taking all of your furniture and moving into a new house. It might be a brand new house or an old mansion, but whichever it is, you have to be sure to alert search engines to the fact that you have changed your domain. If you don’t, guess what? All your lovely SEO standings and traffic will disappear, virtually overnight.
Well, as I explained in another article, the Web is HUGE! I’m not talking elephant huge. I’m talking planets and galaxies huge. You can’t possibly expect search engines to understand that your one little website (think of people walking on the Earth) has changed its address. Heck, the post office can’t even figure that out, unless you give them a card that tells them you’ve moved. Otherwise, what happens? All your mail gets delivered to your old house.
Your traffic and any page rank you have built up will go with it. So, what can you do?
It’s pretty simple, really. Just fill out a little virtual card and tell search engines where you’ve gone.
In Google Webmaster Tools, look up in the far right-hand corner and you’ll see a little “Settings” wheel:
When you click on that, you’ll see a dropdown list of elements. Click on “Change of Address.” There, Google instructs you to:
Set up the content on your new domain.
Redirect the content from your old site, using 301 redirects.
Add and verify your new site to Webmaster Tools.
If you’re using WordPress, getting the old content out is easy. You just back all of it up and then, transfer it to your new domain. If you’re not comfortable doing this through your hosting account, I found a nifty plugin that does this very easily called UpDraft Plus – Backup/Restore.
The reason I love this plugin is because it can a) automatically backup your site at whichever interval you choose and b) restore your site from your backup files, simply and easily. I have found that backing up to your Amazon S3 account is easily done (though you can backup to Dropbox, Google Drive, Rackspace or other storage systems, or you can just have it sent to you via email) so that you never have to remember to do it. It happens automatically. And you can keep as many backup copies as you like. I usually limit it to two, but that’s your call. You can also do manual backups, but who remembers, right? We’re busy people.
So, when you get WordPress installed on your new domain, all you need to do is install UpDraft Plus, and then, have it restore all your files for you. It will restore your database, your plugins, your theme and your media files – all with the click of a few buttons. I think it’s pretty awesome.
Once your pages are moved to your new site, you have to tell search engines where they went by completing 301 (permanent) redirects for every page and/or post in your site. The last thing you want is for spiders to knock on your front door, expect to find something, but nobody’s home… 404 error! Ack! They really don’t like that and it will cost you.
This can also happen if you don’t move your site to a new domain. Let’s say that you just changed your category labels, which creates a new URL for every page in that category, or that you’ve changed your permalink structure. Either of those activities will change your pages’ URLs. Don’t do that!
I had a client do this without telling me and suddenly, traffic dropped quickly and quite dramatically! But that’s not the bad part. Their site went from making an average of $32K a week, down to $13K. That’s a BIG chunk of change lost, just because when people clicked on a Google search result, they were met with a 404 page because the former link was broken! At least that’s how search spiders saw it. Plus, if you don’t do this right away, it can take quite a while for things to come back.
You need to redirect every single page that has moved or changed, and you need to do it quickly.
Using WordPress, there are several different redirection plugins available. I like “Redirection,” but there are many plugins that will help with this. Just find one that is up-to-date and highly rated.
Generally, you’re going to be putting a bunch of URLs into the plugin system and telling search spiders where they can now find the page. So, for example:
Old page: http://myolddomain.com/page1.html
Redirect to: http://mynewdomain.com/page1.html
But if your site has a LOT of pages, it could take forever to redirect each of them to the new URLs, one-by-one. What I like most about “Redirection” is that if you change a title, for example, the URL to that page changed. Redirection will automatically redirect the old page to the new one. You’re saved without making a single entry!
However, let’s say you moved your whole site and there are 3,000 pages in your site. Every URL has to be redirected.
One-by-one, this could take forever, so you probably want to add a “Mod Rewrite” in your .htaccess file instead. This is a little more technical than I like to be in an article, so if you’re on an Apache server (as most of us are), here’s a full tutorial from Apache that will help you to create a Mod Rewrite. Done properly, a mod rewrite will transfer all of the pages from one domain to the other without needing to do each URL one-by-one. Whew!
Bing Webmaster Tools has made the redirection MUCH simpler for webmasters, which I think is killer. Log into your account, and in the left-side navigation panel, you’ll find this:
Open “Diagnostics & Tools” and scroll down to “Site Move.” You’ll be taken to a page like this:
You can choose to move URLs from one place to another in your existing site or to move the entire site to a new domain. You’ll notice you can tell Bing about moving whole directories (which categories, for example, would be) or subdomains, too. They really make it easy for you. I used to hate Bing Webmaster Tools, but with the many updates they have made, it’s become a much more powerful tool. Plus, your adjustments here will work with Yahoo, as well.
The last step in moving your site is to verify the new address with the search engine. For Google or Bing, it’s just like the verification process you used to verify your site the first time.
You can verify your site one of three ways:
Add a meta tag to your HTML in the <head> section
Upload a file to your root domain.
Add CNAME (alias) record at your domain registrar’s.
I usually choose #2, just because it’s easiest because it’s done via FTP. You don’t have to alter your page and you don’t have to visit your domain registrar to make the CName changes.
But if you’re using WordPress, you can verify your site using WordPress SEO by Yoast. Any of the three ways are pretty simple. Just be sure that you have already verified the old domain before you verify the new one.
Then voila! You’re done.
I won’t kid you; you will still see some weirdness with your stats for a while. But moving a domain doesn’t have to be the kiss of death, either. I moved my blog to a new domain a few years ago, and had around 750 pages in my site at the time. Everything – traffic and page rank – came back in a matter of weeks.
Listen, you know what they say when I complain about getting older, right? “Think of the alternative.” If you have any kind of ranking built up in search, it’s not just smart to do these things, it’s imperative!
Pat Marcello is the President and SEO Manager for MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ so you don’t miss a thing. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was “Should You Transfer to Google Universal Analytics?"